People come to Da Peppe Pizzeria Napoletana, on Tel Aviv’s Ibn Gabirol Street, not only for the genuine, Neapolitan-style pizza but also, and perhaps mainly, because of the owner. Giuseppe (Peppe) Giordano moved to Israel from Naples a year ago and opened the pizza parlor about six months ago. Giordano, who wrestled in high school, is a temperamental yet sensitive, artistic and funny type. He turns every anecdote into a juicy story, but doesn’t take his eyes off the oven, which he imported from Italy, for a moment.
Facts about Giordano: He drinks his cola from a small glass − “Just like life, good but too short.” The ringtone on his cellphone is a recording of a conversation between the crew of the Costa Concordia cruise ship and the captain who fled from it as it sank off the Italian coast in January − “They’re asking him to return to the boat and he won’t.” His red Vespa is always parked outside the restaurant, but he refuses to make deliveries − “Anyone who wants to taste my pizza has to come here and feel the atmosphere.”
He covers the expensive tables he bought for the restaurant with oilcloth − “Nothing should be elegant in this place except the pizza.” He lets children go in the kitchen, play with the dough, try to bake pizza, run around, break things and taste everything − “like at home.” He encourages the waiters to shout at him from the sidewalk, except on the evenings of classical music.
Giordano usually looks as if he just climbed out of a sack of flour, with the white powder on his arms and eyelashes and in his nostrils.
In between pizzas he scratches his back with a long, charred wooden fork and purrs with pleasure. He doesn’t really know Hebrew and he doesn’t really understand Israelis, but he feels he has a duty to make them pizza like in Naples. If customers don’t shut the door he curses them silently in Italian.
Real and dirty
In the evenings, the pizzeria twinkles with colored lights and the air is redolent of bubbling mozzarella and fine Italian coffee. Customers, including employees of the Italian Embassy, embrace Giordano across the counter. If customers fail to close their door behind them he quietly curses them in Italian. If they ask him to break with tradition and make a pizza with their choice of toppings he refuses outright and shows them the menu: three kind of salad, a dozen different pizzas and three desserts.
“For some reason in Tel Aviv pizza is considered fast food. In Italy it isn’t. You better know what you’re doing there. Italians are very anal about pizza. There is a reason I don’t make pizzas to order. I won’t make one half of a pizza one way and the other half another way because I’m afraid the ingredients will blend together in the oven.
Some toppings are incompatible. I won’t have customers going home with a stomachache. Do people ask [chef] Haim Cohen to put hummus into a pastry before baking it? No. Because in a chef restaurant you don’t tell the chef how to cook, you trust his talent,” Giordano says, adding that he plans to open a pasta restaurant soon in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, where he will give workshops in making pizza and pasta.
What do you think of the local pizza?
“Mamma mia! Giordano exclaims, rolling his eyes. “I am rather confused. Since coming here I’ve eaten out a lot. I fell in love with Yemenite food, with hummus and with grilled meat. I thought I was in heaven. I was eating amazing Nile perch in the Yemenite Quarter, and a bicycle sped past and nearly knocked over my plate. That was dirty, but it was the real thing.
“And then I went to pizzerias, and I went into shock. I didn’t believe I’d find such a disaster. After all, in Israel there are excellent raw materials and fresh vegetables − everything you need for world-class pizza. There is no reason for the pizzas to be less than mediocre. I asked many pizza makers how this situation came about and they couldn’t explain it to me. After a year in Israel I realized what happened: It’s how Israelis like it. Israel is a melting pot, people became accustomed to highly spiced food and when they encounter a good, simple pizza, with tomato sauce and mozzarella, they don’t taste the flavor.
“Italian food is simple. We focus on the quality of the meat and the cheese and not on strong flavors, because delicate flavors are proof of quality. The first time I go to any pizzeria I always order a simple pizza Margherita. Israeli pizzerias sprinkle on oregano, garlic, onion, pepper, jalapeno and cayenne indiscriminately. What is that about? In Italy they would throw the pizza back in your face. Some people here claim to make Neapolitan pizza. They would do better not to purport to represent a particular province in Italy if they can’t meet its standards. You want to know what’s so special about my pizza? Here! I hung the recipe on the wall. It has four ingredients. Anyone can try to make it,” Giordano says.
“But it’s in Italian,” Adam Levy, a perceptive waiter, notes. “So use Google Translate,” Giordano says, laughing.
Growing up in a bakery
Giordano was born in Brooklyn, in 1975. “My mother gave birth to me in the United States so I’d have a visa. I’m glad she did, because the entire world is open to me. But don’t worry, I plan to stay here. Israel needs someone like me.”
Is it for religious reasons that the restaurant is closed on Sunday?
“No. I am Catholic, but a really bad one. I am not converting because no doubt I will be a very bad Jew. I went to the Via Dolorosa and everything seemed pretty fake. At the restaurant I prefer not to talk about religion, politics or soccer.”
Giordano spent his childhood at the family bakery in the ancient town of Airola, in the province of Campaniaa, 35 kilometers from Naples. His father is a painter, a sculptor and above all a baker. His mother is a pianist who makes fabulous ice cream. Giordano’s brutish appearance hides a gentle soul: He is an artist and a musician who has made two albums and has performed with New York bands Protocol Nation and Citizen Fury. He worked on the impressive mosaic on the the restaurant’s main wall for a month and he always carries a notebook in which he sketches and writes poetry.
When he was 15 he returned to New York, where he attended high school and college and aspired to become an industrial psychologist. In the evenings he waited in Italian restaurants and apprenticed in a pizzeria. On weekends he studied cooking and baking. At New York’s famous Serafina restaurant he began as a waiter. One day the building’s second story collapsed, and Giordano helped to rescue the injured. The restaurant’s owner was so impressed by Giordano that he asked him to be the general manager. “That was one hell of an upgrade for a waiter,” he recalls. He stayed at Serafina for 11 years, serving celebrity customers including Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Kid Rock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Joel and Paris Hilton. That is also where he met his wife, Shira, an Israeli. Their son, Michael Anielo, is 18 months old.
‘Sababa isn’t a compliment’
Giordano is a member of the Vera Pizza Napoletana Association, a nonprofit organization that defends local culinary tradition and promotes genuine Neapolitan pizza worldwide. “That is my synagogue,” he says.
From the organization Giordano was instructed in the uncompromising standards for Neapolitan pizza, including a calorie chart, precise recipes and a restricted list of ingredients. He accepted the conditions without reservation. “I work in a traditional manner, with the same passion and by the rules. Every two weeks I send the association photos of the pizzas that I make. They offer ideas and guide me,” he says.
What upsets you?
“I don’t like bad-tempered customers, who are rude to the staff, the ones who think that because they bought a pizza they also bought the place. You ordered a pizza with anchovies? Taste it, at least! What did you expect, Beef Bourguignon? Don’t come to my place if you think you have more rights than anyone else. My job is to make you excellent pizza, your job is to eat it. If you’re good to me, then I’ll also make coffee for you afterward,” Giordano says with a smile.
“By the way, how is the pizza?” he asks a diner sitting at the bar and eating with obvious passion. Before he can swallow and respond, Giordano continues: “If people tell me the pizza is sababa (“great” in Arabic-derived Israeli slang), I get annoyed. I hate that expression. Is it even Hebrew? Is it in the dictionary? Sababa is a word that describes everything, that has ceased to be a compliment. It’s like saying the pizza is ‘beseder’ (“okay”).
“My pizza isn’t fattening. There’s no oil in it, only peeled tomatoes and excellent mozzarella,” he says, proving his point by stealing a slice from my plate − despite the diet he is supposed to be on. He folds it and shoves it into his mouth. “In Naples we eat pizza with one hand, folded like a billfold,” he explains. “But here I have to cut it into slices, the way Israelis like it.”
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